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1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler

Author(s):Straumann, Tobias
Reviewer(s):Wandschneider, Kirsten

Published by EH.Net (February 2023).

Tobias Straumann. 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. xxi + 240 pp. £12.99 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0198816195.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kirsten Wandschneider, University of Vienna.


For many scholars interested in German history, and indeed many Germans trying to come to terms with their country’s difficult past, the question of the underlying reasons that enabled the Nazis to come to power is of central and recurring importance. In his book 1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler, Tobias Straumann offers an engaging new take on the issue. Straumann sees the fundamental cause for the crisis and the rise in German extremism in the tension between the internal and external demands placed on Germany in the 1930s.

The 2010 Euro crisis with its challenges of debt and austerity and the accompanying experience of rising international extremism serve as a contemporary ‘hook’ to introduce the key themes of the book. On the one hand, Straumann paints a vivid picture of German politicians trying to uphold external agreements in the hopes of sustaining a fragile peace and trying to meet reparation demands to maintain German creditworthiness. On the other, domestic political pressures built as extremists tried to exploit any international concessions. Straumann subtly cautions that early 1930s Germany serves as a powerful lesson that might illustrate a dangerous path to autocracy today.

While many of the historical details and the economic arguments in the book, such as the German political events and the constraints and different incentives put in place by the Dawes and the Young plan, are not new, Straumann offers a fresh, engaging take on the interplay of these opposing forces.

For Straumann, the chasm between the internal and external pressures comes to life in the decision-making processes of key characters, who individually maybe tried their best but collectively failed to see the precariousness of the situation or were not powerful enough to swing the tide. Some of the historical figures illuminated in the book include the Austrian-Swiss economist and banker Felix Somary, called the ‘raven’, who predicted the German crisis with depressing clarity; Hans Schäffer, who served as state secretary in the Ministry of Finance and took copious notes of all meetings before emigrating to Sweden in 1933; and Frederic M. Sackett, who served as US ambassador to Germany from 1930-33.

In addition to the rich secondary literature on the German crisis, Straumann draws on original sources, including autobiographical texts and archival notes. While painting a somewhat sympathetic picture of the book’s main characters, who appear as pawns in a larger game of political power play and historical processes that were put in place in the immediate aftermath of WWI if not before, Straumann contextualizes but does not excuse their actions. For example, he clearly labels shifts to authoritarianism introduced by Brüning, such as the adjournment of the Reichstag in October 1930 (chapter 5).

In addition to an introduction and a conclusion, the book is organized into three main sections, aptly entitled ‘Confidence’ (chapters 1-3), ‘Indecision’ (chapters 4-6) and ‘Despair’ (chapters 7-10), which chronicle Germany’s descent into dictatorship. The first section lays the groundwork by illuminating the German economic situation at the eve of the 1930s through the eyes of Felix Somary, detailing the conditions of the Young plan and its relative changes to the preceding Dawes plan, and introducing the reader to the German domestic political environment, especially Chancellor Brüning.

While this first part of the book ends on a cautiously optimistic note, with the stabilization of German finances by the Brüning government under the Young plan, the precariousness of the situation becomes evident in the second part, with the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions in Germany and abroad and the results of the Reichstag elections of September 1930, where the Nazi party rose to the second largest party, with 18.3% of the votes (up from only 2.6% in May 1928). The Brüning minority government struggled to stabilize German finances, but the international community failed to fully grasp the looming dangers.

The last third of the book then concentrates on the active phase of the German financial crisis, beginning with the run on the Reichsmark, the hapless attempts by the United States to support Germany through the Hoover moratorium, to the collapse of the Danat Bank and the ensuing German Banking crisis, and Brüning’s increasing isolation and his desperate attempts to maneuver through the predicament. While Brüning was able to hold onto his position as chancellor until May 1932 and Hitler was installed by Hindenburg in January 1933, Straumann argues that the deteriorating economic situation was strategically exploited by, and thus continuously benefitted, Hitler and the Nazi Party. This last claim, while not inconsistent with the existing literature (for example, Galofré-Vilà, et al, 2021) is the one aspect of the book where I wish Straumann had expanded the narrative and provided more detail.

Altogether, the book provides a vivid and very readable account of the dangers that lurk when international agreements and institutions ignore the realities of domestic politics. For this reason the book is a wake-up call for today’s politicians and economic policy makers, and deserves to be read not just by economic historians but by a wider audience as well.


Galofré-Vilà, Gregori, Christopher Meissner, Martin McKee, and David Stuckler. “Austerity and the Rise of the Nazi Party.” Journal of Economic History 81(1): 81-113 (2021).


Kirsten Wandschneider teaches economic history at the University of Vienna in Austria. Her research focuses on European interwar economic policies and financial markets.

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (February 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World: Volume I, 1700 to 1870

Editor(s):Broadberry, Stephen
Fukao, Kyoji
Reviewer(s):Carreras, Albert

Published by EH.Net (February 2023).

Stephen Broadberry and Kyoji Fukao, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World: Volume I, 1700 to 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. xvi + 490 pp. £120 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1107159457.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Albert Carreras, Full Professor, Department of Economics and Business, Pompeu Fabra University.


As the first of the two volumes of the Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World (CEHMW), this book covers 1700 to 1870. In title and format it bears a strong similarity to the Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe (CEHME), also co-edited by Stephen Broadberry and divided into two volumes the same way: 1700-1870 and 1870-present. In both cases, there is an explicit attempt to systematically cover all countries and regions, not just the major ones. To stress the universal coverage, the two CEHMW volumes are mostly organized geographically. This volume’s nineteen chapters are divided into two parts. The first part’s eleven chapters cover “regional developments” and the second part’s eight chapters cover “factors governing performance differentials in the global economy.” Both volumes are organized almost exactly in the same way and include useful “Introductions” by the two editors, summarizing forcefully their purpose, organization, and contents.

The worldwide scope is the main success of the two volumes. A group of top-level contributors cover, in a well-integrated and cohesive manner, eleven major world regions, with some subtle differences between the first volume and the second (already reviewed in EH.Net). Volume one starts with a chapter by Stephen Broadberry, “Britain, the Industrial Revolution and Modern Economic Growth”, which sets the standard for all the other regional chapters, orderly reviewing the themes addressed in both volumes. It is the pièce de résistance of the whole CEHMW. The second chapter, by Giovanni Federico and Andrei Markevich, is on “Continental Europe” and closely follows Broadberry’s pattern. The volume then turns its focus to Asia, with “Tokugawa Japan and the Foundations of Modern Economic Growth in Asia”, by Masaki Nakabayashi; “China: The Start of the Great Divergence”, by Christopher Isett; “From the Mughals to the Raj: India 1700–1858”, by Anand V. Swamy; “Sustainable Development in South East Asia”, by Jean-Pascal Bassino; and “The Ottoman Empire, 1700- 1870”, by Sevket Pamuk. The Americas come next, with “The Economic History of North America, 1700-1870”, by Joshua L. Rosenbloom, and “Latin America, 1700-1870”, by Regina Grafe. The book then moves south, with “Africa: Slavery and the World Economy, 1700-1870”, by Patrick Manning; and “Australia: Geography and Institutions”, by David Meredith.

All these chapters attempt to follow Broadberry’s ordered checklist of themes to be addressed and provide many useful figures and tables that summarize high quality previous research. In some chapters the lack of data and the need to clarify the institutional factors oblige the authors to design simpler checklists to address less straightforward cases where failures in state capacity building are a major issue. Even so, the China and India chapters on the start of the Great Divergence fit in well with the theme and the ambitions of the volume. The Japanese experience emerges as an amazing counterexample of the dramatic Chinese and Indian failures. The South East Asia chapter comes surprisingly close to Broadberry’s checklist. North America and Latin America are well surveyed in chapters that focus on the causes and impact of the independence divide, just in the middle of the period under scrutiny. The Africa chapter is focused on the mass enslavement and export of African populations, and a lot has been researched recently that allows for a better drawing of the main facts. The Australia experience follows closely North American developments.

The editors’ dedication to a global approach to the entire 1700-1870 era is clearer still in the second part of the volume. Reviewing the “Factors Governing Differential Outcomes in the Global Economy” would seem a much more challenging task for 1700-1870 than afterwards. Nevertheless, it is amazing how all the chapters manage to provide a truly world history, mostly by focusing on the large regional units displayed in the first part – Africa, China, India, Latin America, North America, Ottoman Empire, South East Asia – and certain smaller countries (in surface or in population) that deserve to be considered individually – Britain, Japan, and Australia. Some continental European countries are mentioned individually, but not many. In this global approach to the major issues at stake, some parts of the world achieve a more central role than usual: China, India, and Africa. They are not footnotes but substantive parts of all chapters. Bearing this in mind we have two chapters on the proximate sources of growth: “Population and Human Development since 1700” (Romola Davenport and Osamu Saito) and “Proximate Sources of Growth: Capital and Technology, 1700-1870” (Alessandro Nuvolari and Masayuki Tanimoto). There are two chapters on the ultimate sources of growth: “Underlying Sources of Growth: First and Second Nature Geography” (Paul Caruana-Galizia, Tomoko Hashino, and Max-Stephan Schulze) and “Institutions” (John Joseph Wallis). Wallis’s chapter neatly complements Part 1 in its comparison of the institutional consequences of the English and Castilian colonizations.

A special chapter, “Consequences of Growth: Living Standards and Inequality” (Jan Luiten van Zanden, Bas van Leeuwen and Yi Xu), addresses and quantifies the trends in indicators of human development – real income, life expectancy and education – in all major regions, with an eye to changes in inequality.

The last three chapters deal with the global economy: “International Transactions: Real Trade and Factor Flows” (Wolfgang Keller, Markus Lampe, and Carol H. Shiue); “Monetary Systems and the Global Balance of Payments Adjustment in the Pre-Gold Standard Period” (Rui Pedro Esteves and Pilar Nogués Marco), and “War and Empire, 1700-1870” (Philip T. Hoffman and Tirthankar Roy). All three provide truly global views on the far from peaceful making of global economic flows.

The first volume of The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World is a set of top-quality chapters and authors. As there is less tradition of a fine-tuned chronology for 1700-1870, the absence of explicit temporal divides is not a major issue. On the contrary, the editors have taken care of pressing gently all the authors to provide, as much as possible, a common set of time benchmarks for the figures and tables to be more comparable. In a time of renewed grand views of world development, looking for major theories of why the West became richer than the rest of the world, this first volume provides, in a compact format, the best that the economic history of the world that witnessed the Industrial Revolution has to offer.


Albert Carreras is Full Professor in the Department of Economics and Business at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain. With Xavier Tafunell, he is the author of Between Empire and Globalization: An Economic History of Modern Spain (Palgrave Studies in Economic History, 2021) and editor of Estadísticas Históricas de España, Siglos XIX-XX, 3 vols. (2005).

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (February 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Servitude and Slavery
Military and War
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

GATT and the Global Order in the Postwar Era

Author(s):McKenzie, Francine
Reviewer(s):Foreman-Peck, James

Published by EH.Net (February 2023).

Francine McKenzie. GATT and the Global Order in the Postwar Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020. xiii + 323 pp. $41.99 (hardback), ISBN 978-1108494892.

Reviewed for EH.Net by James Foreman-Peck, Emeritus Professor of Economics, Cardiff University.


Both an organization and a set of rules, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) originated in the proposed post-1945 International Trade Organization (ITO) intended to prevent or soothe conflicts caused by trade. This was to be achieved by rule-based non-discriminatory all-inclusive trade regulations. But the ITO was never established at the end of the Second World War, so the GATT, initially a temporary expedient, became permanent in an underfunded existence. Eric Wyndham White, who ran the GATT until 1968 ‘ably assisted by the US’, was a liberal internationalist, seeing the secretariat as an honest internationalist broker. He used the threat of resignation frequently to encourage reaching agreements. He avoided admitting GATT subordination to GATT members by showing ‘flexibility’. Free trade internationalism was more common among the wealthier nations reacting against the 1930s, whereas poorer countries concerned with development were more likely to emphasis its disadvantages. However, as one negotiator remarked, ‘no country fully favours GATT objectives’, and it was only in the interest of a common Cold War front that tensions between Britain and the US over Empire preference were stifled.

International historian Francine McKenzie has consulted numerous primary sources around the world, as well as secondary sources, to write an account of this important trade policy institution. Organized around four broad themes – the Cold War, regionalism, development, and agriculture – the study shows and analyses what negotiators and policy makers thought, behind the often bland or triumphant compromise public statements.

The Cold War challenged GATT’s claims of inclusivity and universality. In fact, helped by the US, GATT became a pillar and instrument of the ‘free world’, even though the GATT secretariat encouraged communist countries to join GATT, with inevitable economic and political difficulties. The US treated GATT as a policy instrument, with the exclusion of Hungary two years after the 1956 revolution and of China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. None of the changes brought about by the reduction in tariffs sought by GATT in a market economy were automatic under central planning. They could be implemented only upon the explicit instructions of the central planners. Moreover, the decisions leading to these changes need not be disclosed. There was no mechanism under central planning that a market-based trade partner could rely on to ensure the required reallocation of resources following the abolition of a trade barrier (Matejka 1990).

Neoclassical economics indicates that unilateral reduction of national trade barriers is most welfare enhancing, but this is not how tariffs were reduced after 1945. Rather, the GATT adopted a bilateral approach to multilateral tariff bargaining. Reciprocal request-offer negotiations were made voluntarily between pairs of countries about specific products. The most-favored nation (MFN) principle (Article I of GATT) then required the results of these bilateral negotiations be extended to the entire GATT membership. When deciding the concessions that they were prepared to offer, member governments could consider the indirect benefits they might have expected from the simultaneous negotiations between other countries. Preferential or regional agreements, inherently discriminatory, on theoretical grounds posed a threat to the efficiency of this multilateral system (Bagwell and Staiger 1999). Trade creation might outweigh trade diversion in aggregate but the individual country losers from the diversion were not necessarily compensated by the creation. Customs Unions and free trade agreements were nevertheless permitted by article XXIV of the GATT.

Even so the European Coal and Steel Community (1951) contravened the GATT. The European Economic Community (EEC) was granted a waiver because the US wanted a strong Cold War partner in Europe. There was no GATT discussion prior to the EEC’s discriminatory and restrictive Treaty of Rome (1957). Again, the US in effect favoured the EEC over GATT. The EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) threatened to take agricultural protectionism to new heights, but the EEC refused to allow GATT to scrutinise it. The US had itself already been granted a waiver of the prohibition of agricultural import quotas in 1955 and was not well placed to object. The EEC prioritised regional interests unapologetically and conspicuously, refusing to give compensation for Common External Tariff in the Dillon Round (1959-62). In the Kennedy Round that opened in 1964 despite very significant liberalization elsewhere, little was achieved with agriculture. Once more the US saw the Round as fortifying the western alliance and GATT was obliged to show ‘flexibility’ again. Significantly, the EEC did not leave GATT because departure would signal rejection of cooperation, international rules, and interdependence. Mackenzie observes that prioritising rights over obligations of GATT membership was not restricted to EEC but the bloc’s size made it matter more.

Regionalism proliferated partly because achieving agreement was easier than with the larger GATT membership. In 1971 the GATT council agenda listed nine regional trade agreements covering almost 30 countries. Some, like ASEAN in 1977 were well received by GATT as genuinely liberalising and others, like the Canada-US agreement of 1989, ever, explicitly attempted to conform to GATT rules. Arthur Dunkel (Director-General 1980-93) claimed to see no intrinsic conflict between regionalism and globalism, but the regional agreements threatened GATT authority; by 1994 of 50 GATT working parties established to consider regional agreements, probably diplomatically only six reached any conclusion.

Though the original ITO had placed considerable emphasis on development, the GATT was persistently criticised by developing countries, who comprised the majority of GATT members. Especially when steered by Raul Prebisch at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), they maintained that liberal policies were not applicable to them. Led by Brazil, one of GATT’s responses in 1964 was the International Trade Centre, to provide support for developing countries exporters. But GATT’s dithering then allowed the OECD and UNCTAD time to devise a generalised system of preferences (GSP) that, contrary to the MFN, provided for preferential tariff reductions for developing countries exports in rich country markets. In 1971 GATT members unanimously voted to adopt the GSP. However, more pertinent for dynamic developing economies were agreements such as the Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA) from 1974 to 1994, imposing quotas on the exports of textiles and garments that developing countries could sell to developed countries.

Agriculture was another sector that faced a host of barriers for developing country exports. GATT rules did not exempt agriculture, but there was strong resistance to liberalisation from large GATT members especially the EEC, the US, and Japan. This challenged GATT’s credibility as a universally relevant organisation because there were so many agricultural exporting countries in GATT; liberalisation of agricultural trade greatly lagged manufacturing. in 1986 Australia was prominent in establishing the Cairns group pressing for ‘fair trade’ in agricultural products and in explaining how Australian farmers were being squeezed by the EEC policy. At the Uruguay Round (1986-1994) the US insisted on liberalizing agricultural trade, while the EEC led by France and Ireland maintained that the CAP was non-negotiable. Yet by the mid-1980s the CAP guarantees of high prices had led to huge food stockpiles; subsidies and other agricultural support took two thirds of the EC budget. Rice production was a nation-wide activity in Japan, so Japan lobbied (unsuccessfully) for a food security clause permitting the exclusion of rice imports. Director-General Dunkel’s widely criticised compromise proposal blended European and US positions: a 20% reduction in scope and volume of existing subsidies and no more export subsidies, dropping prices subsidies in favour of income support and converting non-tariff barriers to tariffs (NTB). Farmers round the world protested and in 1990 25,000 farmers gathered in Brussels, objecting to proposed reduction in subsidies. At least 40,000 farmers attempted to march on the Strasbourg parliament in 1992. 5000 protested in Tokyo and 20,000 in South Korea. The French government and farmers objected violently but were not supported by the rest of EEC. A US concession for French films and more gradual phasing the subsidy reductions permitted agreement, though the President of South Korea resigned over allowing rice imports. NTBs converted to tariff showed how high barriers to food imports had risen; among others the EEC tariffs were 235% on butter and on white sugar, 207%.

Membership of GATT grew throughout the institution’s lifetime, so in that respect the institution can be judged a success. Ceding some sovereignty by following international rules was perceived to have compensating advantages. The successor organisation from 1995, the World Trade Organization, continued GATT’s pursuit of trade liberalisation. Perhaps GATT worked best for the more advanced countries and liberalizers, judging by trade expansion (Subramanian and Wei 2007). McKenzie’s conclusion that GATT, a ‘do gooding’ organization, was never good enough at doing good, simply reflects that GATT’s mediation of divergent national interests necessarily required compromises for all parties.


Bagwell, Kyle, and Robert W. Staiger. ‘An Economic Theory of GATT’. American Economic Review 89(1): 215-248 (1999).

Matejka, Harriet. ‘Central Planning, Trade Policy Instruments, and How Centrally Planned Economies Fit into the GATT Framework’. Soviet and Eastern European Foreign Trade 26(1): 36-65 (1990).

Subramanian, Arvind, and Shang-Jin Wei. ‘The WTO Promotes Trade, Strongly but Unevenly’. Journal of International Economics 72(1): 151-175 (2007).


James Foreman-Peck is Emeritus Professor of Economics at Cardiff University. His publications include A History of the World Economy; International Economic Relations since 1850 (Pearson, 1994) and ‘Trade Wars and the Slump’ (European Review of Economic History, 2007).

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (February 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic

Author(s):Morgan, Jennifer L.
Reviewer(s):Mitchell, Matthew David

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Jennifer L. Morgan. Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021. xvi + 296 pp. $27.95 (paperback), ISBN 978-1478014140.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Matthew David Mitchell, The University of the South.


As Jennifer L. Morgan notes in her introduction to Reckoning with Slavery, “The history of slavery has been routed down one path or the other—economy or ideology” (12). Morgan persuasively argues that the profession should break down the boundary between these two parallel lines of inquiry, as Eric Williams attempted to do with the publication of Capitalism and Slavery as early as 1944. And the fact that the boundary survived Williams’s intervention and has continued to characterize most scholarship on Atlantic slavery until very recently is in Morgan’s view due to the very “nature of the archival traces of the Middle Passage… in which mathematically fixed data are in the hands of economists” who treat them with ostensible “neutrality and rigor,” while more “malleable claims rooted in culture are in the hands of humanists and artists” (53).

Enslaved women and their stories, for Morgan, stand as the great exemplars of what we have lost because of this division. Yet they are also the reason why we should challenge that division and think about “gender, kinship, and capitalism” together rather than separately. For capitalism forced a brutal paradox upon enslaved women: “the entire economy of the colonies depended on the claim that African women gave birth to slaves, not to daughters or sons, not to kin” (155). The attempts of enslaved women to refuse this “systematic denial of their kinship ties” (60) to their own children are at the heart of what Morgan seeks to elucidate in her book.

To do so using the usual methods of historical inquiry, however, is a task of exquisite difficulty; indeed, Morgan positions her book as “not a formal history, for gathering a series of archive-based linear narratives is not possible here” (23). She instead follows Saidiya Hartman’s method of “‘critical fabulation’ in the face of the impossibility of recovering the histories of those whose absence from the archive is a systemic manifestation of the violence perpetrated against them” (169). Morgan’s recounting of the story of Belinda, enslaved in Massachusetts during the eighteenth century, is a particularly memorable example of this method. Working from Belinda’s 1783 petition to the General Court of Massachusetts for her freedom, Morgan states that Belinda’s

“language reflected her acumen about the value of her labor, which ‘augmented’ the ‘immense wealth’ of her owner, the loyalist Isaac Royall. The vast array of experiences that bolstered her ability to petition the legislature are lost to us now, but… Belinda clearly articulates the ways in which her work built Royall’s wealth on the painful ground of her own severed kin ties. Those ties continued to define her and her relationship to her past and her present even though in some ways her enslavement was rooted in the fiction that such ties didn’t exist. Belinda’s petition thus clarifies that the work of erasing kinship was always incomplete” (157-158).

Morgan casts a wide net in showing how European thinkers contributed to this “work of erasing kinship” between enslaved women and their children, even when not directly discussing slavery. John Hawkins’s accounts of his three slave-catching voyages in the 1560s, and Richard Hakluyt’s reproduction of them in his Principall Navigations, figure in this discussion. More surprisingly, so do such economic writers as Thomas Mun, author in the 1620s of England’s Treasure by Forraign Trade, whom Morgan presents together with Hakluyt as having “presented slavery as logically assigned to the [English] nation’s marketplace” (70-71). She also implicates the “political arithmeticians” of the later seventeenth century such as William Petty and John Graunt, whose work marked “a shift in practices of quantification that had profound implications for those ensnared by its new terms” (96-99). Morgan devotes a further chapter to the idea of “numeracy” as a special marker of racial difference, with Europeans figuring Africans as persons they could count, while “disavowing evidence of numerical rationality among Africans” (110).

Morgan likewise scrutinizes the ways in which modern historians count enslaved Africans, particularly by means of the online Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. In keeping with her recognition that the cultural and the economic stream of scholarship on Atlantic slavery need to be brought together, she does so generously, hailing the Database as “a model of collaborative empirical scholarship” (30) that “has been extremely productive for scholarship on the transatlantic slave trade” (44), even as she perceptively critiques the ways in which it “renders the processes that put [enslaved persons] there indiscernible” (20).

Even so, her reading of the Database falters at times, particularly in her attribution of the frequent invisibility of women in the records underlying the Database to a deliberate decision on the part of slave ship owners and captains. Noting that “almost nine-tenths of voyages” recorded in the online Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database do “not contain information on the sex of the captives” (31), she ascribes this to “the captains’ silence about the numbers of women on their ships.” Asking “what productive work such omission did for ship captains involved in a profoundly violent process of rendering human beings into cargo,” Morgan draws two inferences (47-48). First, had slave traders chosen to keep accurate information on sex ratios among their captives, they would have “r[u]n the risk of ascribing the same human capacity for familial connection to captives that the captain and crew members ascribed to themselves” (47-48). Second, “data regarding sex were inconsequential to the monetary returns on a voyage’s investments: had it been financially significant to have more men than women, those data would have been more scrupulously recorded” (51). Similar arguments recur throughout the book, all based upon the premise that “the evidence [in the Database] is gleaned from merchants, traders, and ship captains” (31).

But the reality is that exceedingly few documents produced by the owners or captains of slave ships survive to the present day. In many cases, the existing documentation for a given transatlantic slave voyage comes from newspapers, government sources, or the records of marine insurers, rather than being produced by those directly involved in the organization and execution of the venture. One prominent exception is the London-based slave trader Humphry Morice, whose papers were preserved by the Bank of England because he served as its Governor from 1727 to 1729. And while these do not offer full documentation for all of Morice’s voyages, those documents that do exist show assiduous record-keeping of “men,” “women,” “boys,” and “girls,” that were bought by, sold by, or happened to die aboard his ships.

Yet such difficulties are, I think, an inherent part of the process when the practitioners of two different strands of scholarship on the same subject begin to learn each other’s languages, borrow each other’s methods, and share each other’s interpretive concerns. Morgan’s account of the archival silence around the women who faced the predicament (as she evocatively terms it) of forced productive and reproductive labor is a worthy contribution to the growing body of literature that seeks to reach the multiple scholarly communities that study Atlantic slavery.


Matthew David Mitchell is Associate Professor of History at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. He is the author of The Prince of Slavers: Humphry Morice and the Transformation of Britain’s Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1698–1732 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (January 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Servitude and Slavery
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century

Salarios que la ciudad paga al campo: Las nodrizas de las inclusas en los siglos XVIII y XIX (Wages That the City Pays to the Countryside: The Wet-Nurses of the Foundling Hospitals in the 18th and 19th Centuries)

Editor(s):Sarasúa, Carmen
Reviewer(s):Gómez-Galvarriato, Aurora

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Carmen Sarasúa, ed. Salarios que la ciudad paga al campo: Las nodrizas de las inclusas en los siglos XVIII y XIX. (Wages That the City Pays to the Countryside: The Wet-Nurses of the Foundling Hospitals in the 18th and 19th Centuries.) Alicante, Spain: Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante, 2021. 512 pp. € 22 (paperback), ISBN 978-8497177184.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato, El Colegio de México.


There has been a growing interest on studying the historic evolution of standards of living, poverty, and inequality. However, long series of wages—a basic input for these inquiries—tend to be scarce and of poor quality, particularly for female wages, and even more so for those living in rural areas. This book is a major step to overcome this hindrance for 18th-19th century Spain. It is the result of a collective project in which several economic historians delved into archives to collect data on wages paid to wet nurses by several foundling hospitals (inclusas) of the different Spanish regions. These institutions received abandoned or exposed babies and placed them in charge of women in rural areas who breast-fed them and took care of all their needs for extended periods of time, in return for a monthly payment.

Wet-nurses’ wages are particularly fit to produce homogeneous and comparable series through long time periods for several reasons. First, the labor required was always the same: raising a child (providing food, clothing, and other needs). Second, they were exclusively money compensations paid monthly, thus avoiding the common problem of dealing with partial retributions in goods or requiring calculating the number of days worked. Third, a great number of people labored in this occupation, thus holding great representativity. Finally, despite being institutional (ecclesiastical or civilian), their wages were very sensitive to the economic juncture since they needed to adjust rapidly to price increases. The series gathered comprise the years between 1700 and 1900 and include information from between 6,602 and 28,325 wet-nurses that offered their services to between 15 to 47 foundling-hospitals.

Another plus of this book is that all chapters pursue parallel questions and follow a similar methodology to collect and analyze the information of the different regions: 1) Galicia; 2) Asturias, Cantabria y Vizcaya; 3) Navarra. Aragón, Álva y Guipúscoa; 4) Castilla; 5) Burgos, Soria y la Rioja; 6) León, Zamora y Salamanca; 7) Madrid y La Mancha; 8) Extremadura; 9) el País Valenciano y Murcia; 10) Almería, Granada, Málaga, Cádiz y Sevilla; 11) Canarias. This allows one to compare their results and place together the different regional pieces to form a picture of the whole country, observing the peculiarities of each region. The first chapter, written by the editor of the book, undertakes this task, offering a national perspective and placing the project and its results within the international debate on the subject.

Each chapter describes the evolution of foundling hospitals in the region studied, in terms of their governance, revenues, capacities, and spatial and social scope. The available sources in some cases limit the period studied, but all chapters seek to assess the number of wet-nurses employed, the areas where these women lived, the evolution of their nominal and real wages, and their relevance to the family income. Thus, the authors had to inquire beyond foundling hospitals, providing a regional mosaic of family characteristics and strategies, main occupations of the population, male wages, and costs of living across the Spanish geography.

The book makes a relevant contribution to the study of poverty, the strategies of those who suffered it, and the institutions devoted to mitigating it. The long period studied offers an extraordinary window to see the changes and difficulties these charitable institutions faced when their control passed from the church to the state, along with those that resulted from the political instability and fiscal penury that Spain suffered through the 19th century. It also shows how the different regions experienced in particular ways the institutional, political, and economic changes that took place in Spain over two centuries. Finally, it also enhances our knowledge on the economic role of women and their participation in the labor force, during an era when census data and other statistical sources are insufficient to assess it.

The richness of the information gathered is so vast that it could not be fully exploited in these chapters. Clearly, the authors that participated in this volume, as well as its editor, understood that it opened fruitful venues of research that go beyond their research scope. Thus, the book generously facilitates the use of the data collected by compiling it in its appendix. In contrast with most economic history studies that focus on analyzing the data and provide few information on how it was assembled, this book offers a thorough description of its sources and methodology. This provides future researchers with the necessary input to produce solid and rigorous analysis. It also opens the way to develop similar projects in other regions where foundling-hospitals existed, such as Latin America, and open the comparative scope of this work beyond Spain.


Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato is Professor of History at El Colegio de México at Mexico City. Her current research projects include the evolution of Mexico’s inequality, standards of living, and women’s participation in the labor force between the 18th and 20th centuries.

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century

The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume II

Author(s):Ma, Debin
Von Glahn, Richard
Reviewer(s):Hübner, Jamin Andreas

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Debin Ma and Richard Von Glahn, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of China: Volume II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 845 pp. $155 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1108425537.

Reviewed by Jamin Andreas Hübner, LCC International University and University of the People.


The second volume of The Cambridge Economic History of China picks up where the first volume left off (reviewed here). It covers 1800 to the present, which includes major turning points in the evolution of China’s economy. The most notable include Britain’s conquest of the flourishing Qing dynasty in the 1840s, its eventual collapse and the creation of the Republic of China in 1912, Mao’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the “Reform era” (post-1978), and the most recent phase (post-Great Recession), which is a return to top-down planning and Party conformity.

For over 2,000 years, “China has sustained the largest single human society on the planet through the development of one of the most sophisticated agrarian systems in history” (p. 87). Before British colonization of China, the Chinese empire was “the largest economy on earth” (p. 531), where the “Qing…enjoyed standards of living comparable or even superior to those of Europe” (p. 83). There was little indication that things would change. But the Opium Wars did just that. While trade with the West was fairly limited up to this point, the victorious British forced “free trade” (p. 83)—requiring that China open its ports abroad. As with any major change in trade, this was viewed as an investment blessing to some, but also “as a destructive force capable of impoverishing certain sectors of the population and economy” (p. 365). Furthermore, “foreign nationals were exempt from the jurisdiction of Chinese law” (p. 414).

This “semicolonial” subordination (p. 415) to western power inaugurated a great reversal that Kenneth Pomeranz, Andre Gunder Frank, and others have written about. Contrary to ordinary Eurocentric history, Western economic dominance was not a long-term, inevitable result of superior institutions founded over 2,000 years ago, but a highly contingent blip on the screen of Asian dominance in the world system. The book traces out these dramatic changes in chapters covering ideology, institutions and enterprises, finance, money, markets, business organization, foreign trade and investment, education, and other areas up to and beyond the Maoist era.

Readers may find interesting the unusual role played in the Chinese economy by Christian missionaries —who poured into the country starting in the 1860s. By the 1920s, “94% of Chinese counties had records of a missionary presence” (p. 391). This led to the development of a huge number of schools with new curriculum, as well as hospitals. “A great majority of the subjects in the curriculum of the new schools were novel to the Chinese” (p. 393), and improved healthcare opportunities facilitated further population growth (p. 394) and perhaps more critical reflection that helped the revolts of 1911. Readers also learn that (in crude and simplistic terms) “Communism and violent Communist movements originate from Christianity, and naturally the Christian church was essential for the creation of the first totalitarianism” (p. 541). That is, similar to Europe and Catholicism, the institutional churches and movements involved in China validated and empowered state ambitions.

The road to Chinese economic and political statism was gradual. “As early as 1912, Sun [Yat-sen] stated that all major industries in China should be owned by the state” (p. 185); China had to make up for lost time in industrialization. The world wars and threats of Japan provided further reason or opportunity to centralize economic control (p. 165, 186-87). The “institutional genes” of “imperial institution and secretive organization” (p. 543) also contributed to this move. By the time of Mao, the road to totalitarianism had already been laid, and Mao explicitly took Stalin’s model to greater extremes. However, some contributors contend, “Totalitarianism is foreign to the Chinese. When the CCP was established in 1921, the number of Chinese who knew constitutionalism was far more than those who knew Marxism or Bolshevism” (p. 543). There was nothing inevitable about China’s turn towards totalitarian communism—anymore than industrialization and capitalism was inevitable for the British over a century earlier. Whatever the case, the advent of the Maoist period was filled with contradictions not unlike the Bolshevik Revolution. Just as the Bolsheviks promised economic democracy and worker control but then reneged in 1918, so the Chinese Constitution “recognized the peasants’ rights to private land and the property rights of the owners of private firms”—only to nationalize/collectivize a year later (p. 549).

Maoism is popularly known for its cult around Mao and the “Great Leap Famine” (1958-1961), where about 30 million people (needlessly) died. This was apparently caused by (a) the use of grain to finance industrialization and repay Soviet debt instead of feeding Chinese people, (b) the cruel confiscation of metal from the population (including cooking tools) to support industrialization, and (c) the consolidation of agricultural cooperatives into ineffective “gigantic peoples’ communes” (p. 645). By this “Great Leap,” China would become “self-reliant,” and never worry about being colonized by the West again (p. 717-19). Maoism as a whole did eliminate excess wealth inequality, increase life expectancy and primary education, and achieved  “food security”; and China “fared better than many other countries—Meiji Japan and Industrial Revolution Britain come to mind—during the early stages of their industrialization” (p. 639). The Maoist consolidation also, in some ways, made the reform era more effective (p. 733), if not simply provided the industrial infrastructure for the next, and most successful phase of all (1970s-2008).

Formal recognition of private property came back in 2004 and, with other reforms, spurred a surge of private enterprise. Private investment, financial reform, entry in the WTO in 2001 (though see p. 827), and less restrictions empowered China’s economy. The Great Recession and Xi Jinping’s grand visions amplified—and overextended—China’s ambitions and initiated a resurgence of top-down control (p. 817-820) and a return of the leader’s personality cult. “Since 2013 all private firms and NGOs…are required to set up CCP branches within the firm and organization,” and “Discussions of constitutionalism and judicial independence are prohibited” (p. 562). Religious freedom is now being eradicated. Academics are facing new obstacles, like “restrictions on participation in international projects and conferences. Foreign textbooks now arouse suspicion” (p. 822). China is vastly better off than it was a half century ago. But the challenge is “how to overcome self-imposed obstacles that prevent improvements in knowledge and capabilities from generating intensive growth that outruns the accumulation of resources” (p. 823).

I greatly enjoyed this work, as much as the first volume. The research is incisive, clearly presented, and the volume is very cogently organized. At one point I wondered how the second volume might have been improved if the contributors had read or paid more attention to the first. I say this because second-volume contributors sometimes had contradictory different perspectives about pre-modern Chinese culture and socio-economic ideas, and this is an important topic given the stereotype of “Oriental Despotism” that economic historians are—or should be—trying to wash out of their clothes. Some discussion on the future impact relating to demographics (e.g., age, population, fertility) might also have been relevant and helpful.

Whatever the case, we stand in a very privileged position to be able to learn many lessons from such massive and historic economic system(s), and both volumes deserve a wide reading.


Dr. Jamin Andreas Hübner is a faculty member at the University of the People and a research fellow at LCC International University. He is a scholar of religion and economics, as well as an activist, and organizational leader, and is currently writing a book on cooperative economics.

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economic Planning and Policy
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London: Consumption and Domesticity After the Plague

Author(s):French, Katherine L.
Reviewer(s):McCants, Anne E.C.

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Katherine L. French. Household Goods and Good Households in Late Medieval London: Consumption and Domesticity After the Plague. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021. xvii + 314 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0812253054.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Anne E.C. McCants, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


The Black Death (1348-51) is a key touchstone in economic history scholarship, marking the transition from the boom period of the High Middle Ages to the long retrenchment in population, urbanization, and market activity that followed. Perhaps even more importantly, it marks the shift from an economy in which most unskilled labor lived a bare-bones existence to one with rising wages for the common man (and likely woman too) and increased standards of living by many metrics, if not health itself, in the face of ongoing visitations of bubonic plague. Not surprisingly, the Black Death is also a watershed for social and cultural historians, who have produced no shortage of theories linking the psychological and social toll of the demographic disaster to the development of new understandings of business, piety, society and the state – in short, the origins of the Renaissance or modernity itself. Katherine L. French’s new book nicely brings these two strands together with a focus on the changes wrought in the material possessions of the households of London’s skilled artisans and merchants.

Most studies that seek to assess the impact of the Black Death on whatever their specific topic of inquiry might be typically begin with the event itself. Very few successfully navigate the source lacunae which mark the middle decades of the fourteenth century. Admirably then, French’s study does look at households both before and after the event, as well as during the troubled decades of intense plague visitations themselves. Her sources begin in the mid-thirteenth century and extend as late as the seventeenth. This opening up of such a long run of archival materials for historical consideration is a significant achievement in and of itself. Her work relies on wills drawn up in the ecclesiastical courts, especially the Commissary Court and the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, which have the earliest and longest series starting in the 1370s and 1380s. To this, she adds documentation from London’s Court of Husting which dealt mainly with landed property and runs from 1258 into the seventeenth century. From all of these she only used wills identified for citizens, merchants, artisans, or members of their households living within the city walls to keep her population sample relatively stable. As she demonstrates, the Prerogative Court tended to record wealthier households as they often held property in more than one diocese, whereas the Commissary Court was restricted to property in London itself.

French also utilizes a number of household inventories, some of which had been drawn up for probate and others on account of debt.  Inventories are very rarely used for medieval studies because they are extremely difficult sources to work with and quite limited in their coverage. She found 123 post-plague inventories covering 128 houses, and in a few precious cases, she can even link an inventory with a later will, allowing her to assess not only material objects while in use, but in their second life as bequests. Finally, to these archival treasures she adds deep research into the work of archeologists who have documented changing building patterns in London, and elsewhere for comparison, the spatial layout of homes, and the arrangement of people’s possessions within their domestic and business spaces, where they were so often comingled.

What does she unearth with this hard-won trove of source materials? Prior to the plague, both merchants and artisans, despite being “frequently accused of social emulation or worse,” shared “a common way of inhabiting domestic space and conceptualizations of ideal behavior that their domestic space and furnishings [both] created and enabled” (20). Even though the pre-plague records are thin, it is nonetheless safe to say that even better-off Londoners “lived in cramped and minimally furnished rooms. Most of what they had was not worth much and was not worth passing on” (37). For comfort and sociability they most often turned to cushions, coverlets, and mazers and other drinking vessels.

After the plague she finds strong evidence of both more space and greater assets available to those who survived, with a concomitant expansion in material culture. She says that they “neither simply imitate[ed] their betters nor completely invent[ed] new ways of living, but were rather expanding, adapting, and modifying habits that predated the plague in ways that distinguished them from the gentry and aristocracy” (75). In particular, their homes displayed more wall hangings and painted cloths, more textiles overall, and a notable disappearance of weapons from halls. “Piety and continental sophistication gradually replaced militaristic notions of citizenship” she asserts (83). Likewise, she documents an increase in the number of dwellings, even small ones, that had their own kitchen or fireplace. Wealth distinctions were increasingly revealed by the number of rooms rather than the type of heat sources available to the occupants as they had been in the pre-plague evidence.

These newly expanded material lives necessitated new forms of housekeeping to manage both the increasing size of dwellings themselves and the amount of stuff they contained (99). Her evidence reveals that laundry, along with other cleaning tasks as denoted through their material objects, increasingly occupied the work associated with householding. Textiles require much more routine care than wooden or metal objects, and so female labor demand in the household rose in importance after the plague too. Indeed, she observes, “What had been a high-status male job in the elite houses of rural England [that is, domestic service] had become a low-status female one in London” (117). Along with the gendering of domestic work, the evidence of what kind of bequests were left to what kinds of people also suggests that Londoners learned, even if only slowly after the Black Death, “to gender many of their new household possessions” as well (219).

Household Goods and Good Households is an impressive achievement. Its documentation of the material lives of London citizens, from wealthy merchants to middling craftsmen, across the great divide of the Black Death is revelatory; her argument about cultural change in the face of demographic catastrophe is compelling; and her prose is refreshingly readable. Regardless of whether we use the term “revolution” or not for changes in consumption behavior (as is much debated in the eighteenth-century historiography), French offers the field of consumption history many new reasons to look to the fourteenth century for a more complete picture. She tells her readers in the introduction that her project is “to understand what London’s merchants and artisans learned as they learned to buy, use, and live with more stuff not only right after the plague, but in the generations that followed” (3). Her completed project succeeds admirably in doing just that.


Anne E.C. McCants is the Ann F. Friedlaender Professor of History and Director of the Concourse Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among her recent publications is “Economic History and the Historians” (Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 2020).

Copyright (c) 2023 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (January 2023). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Health, including Medicine, Disease, and Pandemics
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval

Insurance Era: Risk, Governance, and the Privatization of Security in Postwar America

Author(s):Horan, Caley
Reviewer(s):Thomasson, Melissa

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

Caley Horan. Insurance Era: Risk, Governance, and the Privatization of Security in Postwar America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2021. 251 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN 978-0226784380.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Melissa Thomasson, Department of Economics, Miami University.

In this book Caley Horan explores the marketing, investment, and underwriting practices of the insurance industry in the United States, with a particular focus on events after World War II. She argues that as they sought to prevent nationalization and increased regulation, insurance companies played an important role in propagating free-market policies that subjugated moral and ethical questions of risk-bearing and reinforced institutionalized discrimination.

The book is divided into three parts, each with two chapters. In the first section, entitled “Selling ‘Self-Made’ Security,” the author looks at how insurance marketing changed after the New Deal. The government’s involvement in the economy following the Great Depression created the opportunity to redefine the connection between economic security, the insurance industry, and the government. After the Temporary National Economic Committee (TNEC) accused the industry of predatory selling practices, price fixing, and failing to prevent policies from lapsing, the insurance industry formed the Institute of Life insurance (ILI) to act as a “public relations organization” to avoid increased regulation by the federal government (p. 25). These efforts, which apparently succeeded in preventing regulatory changes, later evolved into a campaign in the 1940s to sell more insurance using national security as justification. As Horan notes, while prewar ads focused on economic security for dependents of policyholders, postwar ads focused on policyholders using insurance to secure individual economic freedom, a “celebration of free enterprise and entrepreneurial action with a thinly veiled critique of public action” (p. 28).

In the first part of the book, Horan effectively demonstrates that the insurance industry sought to avoid increased regulation and potential nationalization by showcasing their value and highlighting their socially responsible actions. In some cases, we see this in the creation and marketing of new products such as Blue Shield in the late 1930s. While hospitals had founded the predecessors to Blue Cross plans in the late 1920s and early 1930s, physicians were slower to develop similar prepayment plans, believing that such plans would limit their ability to price discriminate. But they quickly adopted their own version of Blue Cross, called Blue Shield, after the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 raised concerns that government could step in and provide nationalized health insurance to fill a perceived gap. The success of Blue Cross and Blue Shield in overcoming adverse selection in the health insurance market also led commercial companies into the market in the 1940s, providing yet another avenue to market “self-made security” to Americans who were worried about communism.

The first chapters of the book are well researched and provide interesting accounts of the development of the insurance industry and insurance advertising during the first half of the 20th century. They detail the data collection efforts insurance companies used to assess risk more accurately (including the famous weight/height tables from Metropolitan Life Insurance Company), offer insight into the origins of driver education (which also involved data collection), and examine how insurance companies used marketing campaigns related to public health and safety to sell their products. However, the chapter also suggests that without insurance company marketing, other forces might have come to dominate, resulting in a more government-based, collectivist approach to economic security. This argument seems to overlook the fact that Americans and non-insurance public interest groups, even before the ILI was founded in 1939, had little appetite for using the government to offset risk, as seen in the repeated failures of attempts to nationalize the health insurance industry during the Progressive Era, the Great Depression, and the 1940s, before commercial health insurance was well established.

Part II of the book, “Investing in Privatization,” offers a fascinating look at insurance involvement in urban renewal and slum-clearing. It describes how with large amounts of assets and regulatory changes in how they could invest, Metropolitan Insurance built the initially all-White Stuyvesant Town and other communities in New York State and addressed charges of racism by creating Riverton for Black homeowners. Horan also examines how the insurance industry’s decisions on where to locate and what to invest in fueled suburban growth. For example, insurance companies poured millions of dollars into suburban shopping malls, which begs the question as to the role of insurance companies in the decline of the urban core, which the author explores in the third part of the book.

The third section of the book discusses redlining by insurance companies. The author discusses the findings of the Hughes Panel (a presidential advisory panel that issued the report “Meeting the Insurance Crisis of Our Cities” in 1968) and presents a convincing argument that, like the Federal Housing Authority, insurance companies used redlining to discriminate based on race. In response to these criticisms, insurance companies argued that their actuarial analysis of risk justified their practices and provided significant funding for a public relations campaign to “reinvest” in urban areas. This part of the book, which also explores gender discrimination, provides a useful context for considering the benefits and drawbacks of experience rating in insurance markets. (Experience rating is the use of factors that could affect risk such as age, health, location, and previous claims and payouts to guide insurance coverage and premiums.)

Economists are aware of how adverse selection combined with community rating can lead to the failure of insurance. The actuarial science behind experience rating is subjective and prone to error, often assigning individuals the risk of their class regardless of their individual behavior, which can reinforce existing social problems such as racism. In addition, as insurance companies compete for subscribers, those who can cherry-pick often have an advantage. For instance, while Blue Cross and Blue Shield initially community-rated their policies, competition with for-profit insurance companies that relied on experience rating eventually forced them to adopt experience rating as well, leading to many people being unable to afford insurance coverage. In this way, Horan’s thought-provoking book asks a good question: what is the role of flawed experience rating in reinforcing discrimination, and how can the problem be fixed?


Melissa Thomasson is Professor of Economics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Her research focuses on the economic history of the US health insurance and healthcare system.

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (December 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Health, including Medicine, Disease, and Pandemics
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII
21st Century

Europe’s Babylon: The Rise and Fall of Antwerp’s Golden Age

Author(s):Pye, Michael
Reviewer(s):Esser, Raingard

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

Michael Pye. Europe’s Babylon: The Rise and Fall of Antwerp’s Golden Age. New York and London: Pegasus Books, 2021. xii + 273 pp. $28.95 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-64313-777-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Raingard Esser, University of Groningen.


The title chosen by the US publisher of the present book (as compared to the slightly more prosaic title of the European edition, Antwerp: The Glory Years) sets the tone for this panoramic survey of one of Europe’s most important early modern cities. It indicates both the superlatives and the nostalgia attached to this lively portrait of the metropolis. Michael Pye, a British historian, journalist, and author currently living in Amsterdam, provides his readers with a colourful kaleidoscope of elements that came together in Antwerp and that shaped and were in turn shaped by the city. This is skillfully done through a series of vignettes which focus on its highly international inhabitants. Many of those inhabitants were newcomers from elsewhere in Europe seizing Antwerp’s opportunities to accumulate riches for themselves, for their families, friends and clients. They also generated wealth, prestige, and values for and in Antwerp, which thrived on its image as a centre of creativity and as a way of life. The stories and their protagonists, whom Pye presents, are based on a mine of rich and diverse sources very often from outside the city, which lost many of its archives during the violent mutiny of Habsburg troops in 1576.

Pye elegantly weaves together information from letters, paintings, contemporary histories, novellas, travel accounts, schoolbooks, and songs to provide a series of portraits of famous and less famous men and women who lived, worked, took refuge, and died in the city. Some of them moved on after a temporary stay. His protagonists are property developers such as Gilbert van Schoonbeke, printer/publishers such as Christoffel Plantijn, the female painter Catharina van Hemessen, the language teacher Peeter Heyns, the African servant Katharina (no surname given), early modern adventurers such as Gaspar Ducci who tried his hand in various more or less successful enterprises, and merchant families such as the Portuguese Jews Mendes, who operated in an international network all over Europe and beyond. The common thread in these vignettes is the portrayal of a city in which “everything goes”, where large-scale immigration brought new skills, new products, new markets, new knowledge, and new knowledge sites. The precondition of these opportunities, in Pye’s reading, was religious tolerance (in the early modern sense of the concept) and restraint in political and administrative intervention from urban and religious authorities and the Habsburg rulers of the time.

These stories of the “Golden Years” are harnessed to a chronology which spans the late fifteenth to the second half of the sixteenth century or, more specifically, to the Iconoclastic Fury (1566) and its aftermath characterized by the arrival of the “arch-villain” of Low Countries history, the “Iron Duke” of Alva as new Governor General. Given that the underlying message of Antwerp’s success delivered in Pye’s story is the city’s economic, religious and cultural openness, this end-date – rather gloomily titled “Antwerp is lost” (thus the title of Chapter 14) – might make sense in the light of the tightening rule of the Habsburg regime in the Southern Low Countries, which had already been inaugurated by the highly contested diocesan restructuring that the Spanish king Philip II had instigated in 1559. This, however, is a rather one-sided view of the city’s fortunes, which overplays the role of the confessional regime imposed by the Habsburg authorities and underplays Antwerp’s continuing influence as an international entrepot and global player both in the later decades of the sixteenth and in the seventeenth century. In a way Pye’s chronology continues and even predates an older narrative of Antwerp’s perceived decline. Earlier historiography up to the end of the twentieth century had diagnosed an “ongelukseeuw” – a century of disaster – for the period from 1585 onwards, when the city was retaken by Habsburg’s forces after a five-year period of a Calvinist city council, and the closure of Antwerp’s economic sinew, the river Schelde, for international trade. Much has been written in recent years to redress this narrative, which had also been framed in the context of Amsterdam’s rise as an international powerhouse. The effects of the exodus of skilled artisans and merchants from Antwerp to Amsterdam in the wake of 1585 and the continuing contribution to high-calibre science and arts, for instance in mathematics and architecture, in the Southern Netherlands, have been reassessed emphasizing Antwerp’s enduring role as a centre of trade and knowledge production under Habsburg auspices well into the seventeenth century. (For an overview of the historiography of Antwerp, see Raingard Esser, “Antwerpens ‘Altweibersommer’: Wirtschaft und Kultur in der Scheldestadt zwischen ‘Fall’ (1585) und ‘Frieden’ (1648),” in Wolfenbütteler Barock-Nachrichten 43, 1, 2016, pp. 65-84.)

In Pye’s reading, however, the factors that contributed to the endurance of Antwerp’s role as an international entrepot and cultural centre – the networks of the Catholic Church and, more specifically, the Jesuits operating on the forefront of the Counter-Reformation – have been largely ignored in his book. Antwerp’s printing presses became smaller and less numerous than their Amsterdam rivals, but in 1572 Christoffel Plantijn managed to secure the monopoly to print all breviaries and other liturgical texts for the Habsburg empire, including the large and increasing market in Latin America. Given that religious texts still made up by the far largest number of print products in the seventeenth century, this was a highly lucrative concession.  Also missing are the landmarks of the Catholic agenda of the city, such as the Cathedral and the many religious houses and churches, which formed the fora as well as the financial back-up for much of the exquisite art, for which Antwerp’s artistic community was internationally acclaimed. In Pye’s reading, however, these are much more orchestrated achievements in support of the Habsburg regime and the Counter-Reformation programme of the Catholic Church, rather than the free-ranging enterprises which characterized the earlier decades of the sixteenth century.

The second outdated paradigm that Pye perpetuates in this story centres around the incompatibility of strong guilds and successful entrepreneurship and merchant enterprises. He repeatedly refers to the weakness of Antwerp’s guilds at the time, which allowed for unrestricted market enterprises, new products, and new methods of production unrestrained by rules and regulations installed to keep the status quo of artisanal standards. This perspective ignores the creative power of guilds, again, particularly in the realm of the fine arts including high-quality silverware, top-of-the-range wooden furniture, tapestries, and other luxury products, which were a signature of Antwerp’s trademark as a centre of innovative high-end products. (On the role of early modern guilds, particularly in Antwerp, see the studies of Antwerp historian Bert de Munck, in Karel Davids & Bert de Munck, eds., Innovation and Creativity in Late Medieval and Early Modern European Cities, Ashgate 2014. See also de Munck, Guilds, Labour and the Urban Body Politic: Fabricating Community in the Southern Netherlands, 1300-1800, Routledge 2017.)

The neglect of more recent literature on guilds and their role as guardians of quality is all the more striking since Pye is otherwise well aware of the recent trends in the historiography around Antwerp. His footnotes refer to studies written in many European academic languages, which in turn, demonstrates the international relevance of this very special early modern European metropolis.

What is perhaps not surprising for a book written for the wider anglophone market is that there is considerable coverage of the role of Antwerp in Anglo-Flemish relations and particularly of the agenda of English reformers such as William Tyndale, whose New Testament in English was printed in the city. Overall, however, international relations in and with Antwerp are well-balanced ranging from Lisbon to Istanbul, from Jerusalem to Mexico, from Cologne to Seville.

The composition of the text as a series of vignettes leads to some overlaps, repetition, and jumbled chronology. Sometimes, the story seems just to peter out (see, for instance, pp. 40-41). There are some musings which perhaps are meant as impulses to reflect on current debates, and it might be in this light that the rejection of guilds as stumbling blocks for free enterprises could be seen, thus reflecting more on the neo-liberal agenda of contemporary British politics than on power relations in early modern Antwerp. But, overall, this is a very readable book, which is richly illustrated with well-known and some lesser-known images of the city and its illustrious inhabitants.


Raingard Esser is professor of early modern history at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. Her main areas of interest are early modern migration and border studies, and her recent publications include “Norwich’s ‘Disorderly Maids’: Immigrant Women and the Institutions in Early Modern England”, in Raingard Esser & Anita Boele, eds., Nieuwe Tijdingen:Genderpatronen in vroegmoderne (Leuven, 2021), and “Niederländische und Wallonische Migrantinnen in Frühneuzeitlichen Exulantengemeinden”, in Victoria Asschenfeld, et al, eds., Die Neustadt Hanau: Ein Drehkreuz im Europäischen Kunst- und Wissenstransfer (Sandstein Verlag, 2022).

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Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century

Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order

Author(s):Sharman, J. C.
Reviewer(s):Lambert, Andrew

Published by EH.Net (December 2022).

J. C. Sharman. Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. xiv + 216 pp. $17.95 (paperback), ISBN 976-0-691-21007-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Andrew Lambert, King’s College London.


This book offers a sparkling critique of the much debated ‘Military Revolution’ thesis of European expansion. Sharman picks up insightful asides from Geoffrey Parker and Jeremy Black, who recognised gaps in the argument, and integrates the work of scholars examining warfare outside the European world, to open a new line of argument. The resulting demolition of long-standing myths of European military superiority over Asian and Africa empires and states is compelling.

Before the 1750s European powers did not use ‘Military Revolution’ methods, or large forces in Africa, Asia, or America. In Asia Europeans were supplicants at Mughal and Ming Courts, anxious to trade, because they were unable to conquer. Portugal’s hard-won Asian empire was effectively restricted to taxing maritime trade at sea and controlling a few key ports. The Iberian powers consistently used extra-European profits to fund wars in Europe and North Africa, with strikingly limited results. In North Africa, centuries of large-scale effort produced little more than a few fortified enclaves that cost far more to defend than they could generate in trade. These were costly vanity projects, not empire building.

More ambitious campaigns ended in disaster. The demolition of an invading Portuguese army, far larger than any force sent to Asia, by Moroccan forces at Alcazer el Kebir in 1578 exposed the core aims of Portugal’s Avis dynasty, crusading and expanding the resource base of a small state. This massive gamble, funded by the profits from African and Asian trade, ended the Avis dynasty, and handed the Kingdom to Spain. The Moroccans used captured Portuguese and mercenary prisoners to expand their empire across the Sahara, to control the gold trade. The Moroccans matched the Portuguese in guns and cannon, while local knowledge, effective leadership and superior cavalry secured victory. Elsewhere the Ottoman Empire dominated eastern Europe long into the 18th century, a system undone by legal and economic changes in land ownership, rather than a ‘Military Revolution’.

The Revolution that handed an edge to the West was the Industrial Revolution, while the collapse of the great Asian Empires, the Mughals and Manchu China, was primarily driven by internal challenges. Europeans came to dominate Africa and Asia long after the ‘Military Revolution’ had passed, recasting the trifling impact of their precursors, and reinforcing contemporary notions of ‘superiority’. Sharman uses the end of these European empires to highlight the relativism of old assumptions. This raises an obvious question: what was the purpose of these European empires? In the case of pre-Revolutionary France prestige and ‘grandeur’ were more important than trade, while Dutch and English/British empire-building efforts were left to chartered companies. In the nineteenth century several ‘new’ empires, notably that of Imperial Germany, were driven by status anxiety.

Critically Sharman establishes that the ‘Military Revolution’ explanation of western imperialism, created in the last era of western empires, has been applied retrospectively to the period between 1500 and 1800 when it was clearly not relevant. European powers consistently prioritised conflict on or immediately adjacent to their own continent over the creation of distant maritime empires. These were primarily treated as a source of funds for European expansion. Walter Raleigh’s imperial vision was unusual only in the clarity with which he made the case that American gold could enable England to defeat Habsburg Spain in Europe. The extraction of funds from the wider world to expend in Europe remained the dominant objective of European activity until the late eighteenth century, with western military superiority emerging neatly coincident with the ’Great Divergence’.

The book concludes by examining how the Europeans finally achieved military dominance, only to lose their empires in the mid 20th century. This assessment tends to underestimate the impact of two global conflicts and United States opposition to European imperialism. That continental military empires including China and Russia have persisted into the twenty-first century, and are still be contested, reflects the dominant Roman paradigm of a land empire homogenised by conquest culture and language. These empires seek security against invasion through terrestrial expansion and close the markets of conquered territories to external trade.

This is a critical text for historians of empires and armies, western and otherwise, not least because it is perfectly pitched to engage and encourage students in history and international relations, especially in institutions places that engage in the study of war and imperialism across the academic disciplines. It should be noted that Sharman, a Professor of International Relations, takes his peers to task for following the flawed assumptions of system-building historians.


Andrew Lambert is a Fellow of King’s College London and Laughton Professor of Naval History. He is the author of The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the Battle for a National Strategy (Yale, 2021) and Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World (Yale, 2018), winner of the 2018 Gilder Lehrman Book Prize in Military History.

Copyright (c) 2022 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (December 2022). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Military and War
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII